Alongside Jackson Square on Friday afternoon, a crowd gathered in hopes that Louis Sahuc, the 78-year-old photographer and curmudgeon, would stroll onto his wrought-iron balcony to greet them with his usual booming voice.
It was a long shot. Three days earlier, with his heart failing fast, Sahuc had called some of his closest friends to say goodbye.
In response, they hired the To Be Continued brass band and planned an homage outside his longtime apartment in the Lower Pontalba building. At around 4 p.m., with their eyes fixed on the balcony, the group of white-haired friends struck up the band and began dancing for him, waving white paper napkins in the air at his second-story windows.
From his perch in the Pontalba and from his first-floor art gallery below it, Sahuc had become well-known not only as an exceptional photographer but also as a neighborhood activist sometimes called as the mayor of the French Quarter. He objected sharply to anything – including tour buses, litter and loud music – that threatened residential life in his beloved Quarter.
Even though the band played for more than an hour, however, the windows and the balcony remained empty. His friend Bob Edmundson suggested wryly that, even in his frail state, Sahuc might find the will to rise from his hospice bed if the horns blew just a little louder, beyond the square’s proscribed decibel levels.
As it turned out, the band’s music might have ushered Sahuc’s spirit out of the Pontalba. He took his last breath, “peacefully and in his sleep” on Saturday at around 5 a.m., said fellow photographer Christopher Harris, a close friend of more than 50 years.
What Sahuc left for the ages was a lifetime of work that Harris described as precise, artful and unequaled – “the most exquisite documentation of New Orleans architecture in the history of New Orleans photography.”
That artistry was self-taught, rooted in patience, observation and love for the city, Harris said:
“He photographed the buildings as if they were people. He felt New Orleans through his eyes. He knew how light affected the plaster on the walls and the greenery coming off a balcony. He could tell you when you should be at a certain corner to see the light fall the right way on the flower boxes on Royal Street.
“His photos would look like they were lit by a movie crew. But it was just him. He would remember a location and when it might look at its best and then he would wait for the right weather and the right light.”
Once Sahuc’s shutter clicked, he was done. “He never took multiple exposures, and he didn’t crop his images,” Harris said. “He would take one picture, and that’s how he wanted it to appear.”
Sahuc’s body of work reflected his life, spent largely in the Vieux Carré.
“New Orleans is a great place to do nothing. I’m a big proponent of that,” Sahuc told The Times-Picayune in 2007. “You can have four-hour lunches, stroll around a charming, ancient history. There’s no agenda. It’s wonderful here, like being in another world, a time warp.”
Beyond architecture, his lens captured frequent dining haunts such as Galatoire’s and Tujague’s. He was first taken to Tujague’s by his father, Louis Sr., who had a molasses brokerage business and French family roots in New Orleans dating from the 1840s – “Day One,” as Sahuc would say.
Sahuc didn’t pick up a camera until he was almost 30. He grew up in Lakeview, graduated from De La Salle High School and got a zoology degree from Southeastern Louisiana University, spent time in the Navy and worked for Pitney Bowes Inc. selling business machines. His father disagreed with his photography career but told him to trust his own instincts: “If you have a dream, never let anyone talk you out of it.”
As he grew into his chosen career, Sahuc was a generous mentor to many younger photographers. His top tip? Throw away the lens cap. “You’ll surely miss a good one if it’s on,” he’d say.
Starting in the 1980s, Sahuc began holding court at a Tujague’s lunch roundtable every Wednesday with friends such as television newsman Ed Bradley and musician Jimmy Buffet, along with anywhere from two to 20 other friends who gathered for vegetable soup, beef brisket, mashed potatoes, French bread and iced tea. Last year, Tujague’s chef Mark Latter named a dining room for Sahuc.
On Saturday, Edmonson found it hard to believe that his longtime pal was gone. “There is a void in the universe,” he said, sorrowfully. “It’s hard to think of the French Quarter without Louie.”